Dental leaders in Scotland have said that the patient backlog to receive NHS dental treatment is huge. The official data has revealed that people living in better-off areas have a greater chance of getting an appointment with a dentist during the past two years when compared with patients living in poorer communities.
It has also revealed that patients who are on long treatment waiting lists have had to resort to expensive private dentist treatment to get seen more quickly. The government in Scotland has said it is committed to dealing with the backlog related to the COVID pandemic in routine dental care.
During COVID’s early days, the closing down of dentistry services, followed by severe restrictions implemented on dental working practices has meant that only emergency dental care received priority in Scotland, and that has meant an enormous backlog of routine care like hygienist visits and check-ups has built up over the past few months.
Recent figures released by Public Health Scotland have shown that 858,407 fewer patients had appointments with an NHS dentist during the past two years when compared with pre-pandemic times. Data from late 2021 has also suggested that the amount of NHS registered dental patients who got an appointment during a 24-month period was the lowest ever on record.
COVID’s strict protocols in dentist practices have been partially to blame, say dentists, with the Scottish Dental Practice Committee’s chairman, David McColl, saying that his colleagues have had to put their priority on those who needed emergency urgent treatment, and this is an ongoing situation.
Dentists in Scotland are still having to adhere to infection control guidelines set by the government which means they cannot treat the same number of patients as before the pandemic hit.
McColl says that the government needs to be truthful with people and not tell them that everything has returned to normal since the healthcare system is still far from normal, with 2 metres social distancing still required to be maintained in practices – a measure that reduces how many people can come through a practice.
Unfortunately, for patients, the lack of available dentist services during COVID has led to misery, pain, and high costs. With patients waiting more than a year to get a dentist appointment, in many cases their oral health spiralled downwards with many of them having to pay extremely high bills for private treatment.
In fact, the move towards paying for dentist treatment is one that is feared by many patients, with one email having been sent out to patients in Lanarkshire actively promoting private check-ups to both children and adults to get around the NHS waiting lists for routine care with a dental membership plan.
Less than half of all adults living in the poorest areas of Scotland were able to get a dentist appointment during the COVID pandemic, when compared with almost 60% from affluent communities. This data shows that the inequalities in oral health between rich and poor are far worse than before.
Amongst children, the problems are even more severe. Almost three-quarters of children from affluent areas were able to see a dentist, whereas just 55% of children in less well-off areas got an appointment.
The government in Scotland says it is committed to dealing with the backlog related to the pandemic when it comes to routine dentist care and will try to ensure more patients are seen by dental teams on a face-to-face basis, including people in deprived communities.
Furthermore, it says that an extra £50 million along with free PPE has been given to dentists in order to ensure that NHS dentistry services are adequately equipped to treat the whole population’s oral health, including by providing better ventilation alongside hand drills which produce no aerosol.
The government insists that it believes in the importance of everybody in Scotland being able to access NHS dental services if they wish and expresses eagerness to return to the 95% of people who did so before COVID.